The Fastest Way to Improve Your Investment Results

Here is the key concept: Abandon that which is not helpful!

Background

One of my best friends loved “investing” in baseball. He had an opinion about every team and every game. He also had a happy bookie.

He called me after taking a course in baseball betting. He explained that you could improve your results, regardless of your system, but refusing any team that had lost the day before. The course provided the evidence, and it was right. Systems all did worse when recommending losing teams.

I could not resist. I told my friend that if he also passed on all plays involving teams that won they day before, he would have a great system!

Investment Advice

Investors flock to websites providing the least helpful information. The writers are making a fortune without ever providing a single constructive or profitable idea! They collect by preying upon your fears and providing confirmation biases for the conclusions you already have reached.

This is a brilliant business model. It is much better than mine, since I must try to explain the contrarian side, provide evidence, and highlight good ideas.

Here is a suggestion for readers hoping for better results:

Review each source you regularly follow. If you cannot find some helpful advice in the last year, cross it off your reading list. If there is not a single stock recommendation that worked, put the site on double-secret probation!

Conclusion

This brief post might be the best piece of investment advice you will ever see. Most will continue their old habits. They love horror stories and lust for confirmation of their biases. You can choose to be different.

Why You Never See the Best Employment Data

On the first Friday of each month the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the Employment Situation Report. The data – especially the payroll employment change – is the subject of much speculation, forecasting, and spinning once it is announced. Most sophisticated analysts (like me) regularly report that the sampling error is +/- 120K jobs or so. And that is after the second revision. Few realize that the revisions mostly “top off” the sample responses. There is also non-sampling error, of course, if the current universe of employers is not representative.

The BLS method involves attempting a “count” of the total number of jobs, via a survey, in one month and subtracting it from the prior month. It is not a direct count of change in the number of jobs. ADP attempts a similar estimate using payroll data from their private clients. Today they reported a gain of 246K private jobs. Both are estimates – and only estimates!

The most accurate employment report comes from a source you never hear about, the quarterly Business Dynamics Report. It is based upon the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), the authoritative final count of all things labor. The QCEW is the basis for the final benchmarking of all the major BLS reports. Why? The data is drawn from local employment offices, not surveys. Businesses are legally required to report all workers. It is the basis for employment insurance, and there is obviously no incentive to overstate employment.

Why Don’t We Hear About This?

No one reports the results of the Business Dynamics Report or the QCEW because we do not have this great and accurate data until eight months later. From the Wall Street perspective, it is “old news.” Here is an important table from the last report.

For our current purposes, the key number is the net employment change of 307,000. I am going to compare that to the estimates made at the time of the original releases.

We should also observe that overall job creation in the quarter was almost 7.5 million jobs. This is very important, but no one seems to know it. Jobs destroyed were over seven million, leaving the net of 307 thousand. This is around 100K per month, and that is all you will hear about.

Please also note that the new jobs come from both additions at current establishments and opening establishments. New jobs from new businesses were 1.4 million for the quarter. The data from this series proves that those complaining about the BLS birth/death adjustment are wrong now, and always have been.

The Estimates

If we fire up the Wayback machine, we can look at the reported employment data from this period. To understand the data, we must realize that the BLS, ADP, (and others) are all making an estimate of the “true job growth.” Their estimates represent different methods, all with pluses and minuses. Let’s see how the two estimates did against what we now know to be “the truth.”

We do not have monthly data for the BED series, but we can see how the two sources did for the entire three-month period. “Truth” was a gain of 307K. Both estimating sources were a bit too high, with the BLS doing better for this round. I have occasionally done this comparison, concluding that the ADP method should also be considered. It would be useful to do this analysis over a longer period. It takes a lot of careful work. (Perhaps if I get a good summer intern, this will be one of the projects. Applications welcome).

Implications for Investors

I understand that investors generally tune out educational posts, especially when a “deep dive” is involved. This is discouraging, since one of my missions is to help people “navigate the noise.” In the case of employment data, it is nearly all noise!

Here are conclusions I have reached, and which you might consider:

  • BLS and ADP both provide useful estimates of employment change. It is a mistake to regard (as most do) the BLS as the “official” result.
  • We should expect variation in the monthly BLS numbers. The survey has a confidence interval of 120K! If the data are real, then the reports should fluctuate around truth.
  • Traders focus on the BLS. They must, since that will be the trading flow. If you are a trader and want to game that announcement, you are on your own. If you are an investor, you should include both reports in your thinking.
  • Do not be bamboozled by those who claim that seasonal adjustments or estimates of new jobs are misleading. I have studied dozens of these claims. None of the writers show any real expertise in data analysis or a proven track record. They are all men on a mission or women on the warpath.
  • The overall path of employment growth remains solid. That will be true even if we get a “weak” payroll employment number on Friday.

And Finally

This topic is (yet another) example of how difficult it is to find real experts. It takes real skill and knowledge. You cannot just read the newspaper.

Other Reading

Your Employment Report IQ – No one knows even 25% of these answers, despite the importance. My favorite prof and greatest teacher introduced me to labor economics. He “approved this message” and said that everyone should read it. While I appreciate the encouragement from a great mentor, the viewership was about 10% of my WTWA pieces – and far less than other pseudo-experts. Trying to help people is an uphill battle!

My best single piece on the monthly employment report. Guessing beans in a jar?

The Quest for Investing Excellence and the Lesson of Dow 20K

The new movement to passive investments is a sharp break from the historical quest for excellence. Many articles claim that no one can do better than the market average. If that is true, you should just throw out your investment library and skip the popular lists of “best investment books.”

This post will suggest a short list of books that would have needed quite different titles. They also would not have become best-sellers! In the conclusion, I will provide some ideas about why this is important for your investment decisions. Here are the hypothetical titles followed by a cover shot of the real book. Suggestions for more examples are quite welcome!

 

In Search of Mediocrity

Market Sheep

The Average IQ Investor

The Little Book that Equals the Market

Common Stocks and Average Profits

Buffett: The Making of a Lucky Investor

Stay Even with Wall Street

Implications

In this series on investment expertise I have (so far) covered the following:

  • There are indeed experts. Sometimes it is obvious, and sometimes they are difficult to find. Consider the case of Phil Mickelson.
  • Forecasting is not always folly. I provide specific examples of expertise, and a checklist for finding the best modeling experts.
  • Dow 20K. The round-number milestone has finally been achieved – at least for today! There are many who are stepping up to claim some credit for their prediction on this front. Some were way too early, and others made the call as we got much closer. Each prognosticator had a method.

My own Dow 20K forecast came when the Dow was at 10,000 and many prominent pundits were calling for Dow 5000! My opinion was controversial at the time. Check out the history of the forecast to remind yourself of how bad things were (unemployment over 10%, and I was ridiculed for suggesting it might fall to 8%).

While it is nice to get some recognition (like this spot from CNBC when we got close to the milestone last month), I see it more as a validation of my methodology. I seek out the best experts. I am constantly looking for excellence. I know that I do not have all of the answers, but my background taught me how to search and to learn. Following superior methods helped to keep my readers and clients on the right side of the market through a long rally hated by most of the punditry and many traders.

There are many paths to trading and investment success. Mine was not the only way, but it was a good way. Having strong evidence and indicators is crucial for confidence.

What Now?

Most of the key factors I see as important are still in place. I summarize them each week. The list of worries has changed a lot but it is still there. The time will come to pull back – but it is not here yet.